Yun & Park discuss fear of isolation, drive me to shake my fist

Yun, Gi Woong and Sung-Yeon Park. “Selective Posting: Willingness to Post a Message Online.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 16.2 (2011): 201–227. Print.

This one’s a mixed bag. The point of the study is to see whether people are less likely to post in an online forum when they perceive themselves to hold a minority opinion, and on the one hand, it makes some moves I really like regarding the convergence of online discussion and traditional mass communication. Yun & Park point out, for instance, that social network sites are now actually acting as major news distribution outlets and that, further, news reporters often survey the blogosphere (and the comments therein) to take the temperature of public opinion. How and when opinions are self-censored—and therefore effectively silenced—is therefore vital to our understanding of mass media, and many of the theories of mass media communication may be applied. This is all great! I love it! And it gets even better when the authors call this what is arguably is: a public sphere.

But then they keep writing things that make me want to shake them. The theory that they are testing out is called the spiral of silence—the idea that people don’t want to speak out when they think they have the minority opinion, which just makes the opinion seem even more minority, so even fewer people speak out, etc. So far, so good. It is commonly understood, the authors go on to say, that this refusal to speak out comes from a fear of isolation, but several of the studies that support this conclusion have somewhat sketchy study design. Then things get weird: according to Yun & Park, in order to experience the fear of isolation, you have to have physical presence and social identity. I’m all on board with social identity (if you’re anonymous and people disagree with you, just make another comment and no one will know), but physical presence? What the what?

This may seem like a triviality, but this idea that the stakes are lowered because of a lack of physical presence devalues online interaction in really problematic ways, as though the emotions that people experience due to digital correspondence are somehow less real than those they experience offline. To say that “if people feel the fear of isolation in online forums, it cannot be due to physical intimidation, gesture, or name calling because people on the forums are anonymous and do not have physical presence” is simplistic and silly. Since when is a body required for name calling? And having seen a woman’s opinion in a men’s forum get taken down with the blunt assault of “get fucked, bitch,” I would like to say that physical intimidation is indeed a part of why people might not want to go against the flow in some scenarios.

Come on, guys.

This doesn’t even touch on questions of pseudonymity—the moment a person takes on an identifier, there is the potential to be isolated from a community. Thankfully, Yun & Park do at least address the question of pseudonymity (sort of) in their study design, when they allow some participants to post anonymously while others must register before posting. Interestingly, the registration process did not appear to deter anyone from posting either affirming or dissenting opinions, but as the authors themselves admit, this could have to do with the fact that participants knew they were participating in an academic study and so were more willing than usual to release personal information with their opinions.

So. The authors found that the perceived climate of opinion offline did not affect people’s willingness to post in the online forum. That is, even if they felt like everyone in the “real world” disagreed with them, they would still post their opinion online. And once again, Yun & Park make the bizarre assumption that this has to do with a lack of physical presence—apparently not having a body makes us fear isolation less? This conclusion seems even stranger when you consider that they found that people were less willing to post minority opinions if they perceived that the online or forum-specific climate were against them. Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable to conclude that the perceived climate of the current space is what drives the spiral of silence?

Like, what if a bunch of strangers were put into a room to discuss abortion (the forum topic in the study). The perceived online climate would probably matter less in this case, no? And would people really fear feeling isolated more strongly in person? Yun & Park keep trying to tie isolation to “real” identity, but as I said before, I think it has more to do with just being identifiable in that context. When it comes to identifiability and isolation, a room full of strangers (to whom I might be “that tall girl”) seems to me to be roughly on par with a forum (to whom I might be “tallgirl83”).

So it seems, according to this study, that “it is inevitable for human beings to have a certain degree of fear of isolation whether online or offline” (216).

Just call me Dr. Watson, I guess.

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